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Teen girl computer at tableQ: My 16-year-old goddaughter’s parents are not Facebook friends with her, so when someone stole her phone and posted some degrading things to her account, they didn’t know until I told them. Another friend asked me to look at all her 19-year-old daughter’s pictures and let her know if I saw anything inappropriate. How can I encourage parents to become involved in this important space so they can do the sorts of parenting they’re asking me to do?
Pixed Up, in Memphis, TN

A: Dear Pixed,

Suggest to your friends that they think of social media like they think of driving a car: Teens may be legally able to do it, but they still need support from someone with more life experience and a fully formed brain to learn to use it responsibly.

The idea of getting involved in teens’ online lives may seem daunting, though. Teens are digital natives, and technologies change so rapidly that it’s hard for their digital immigrant parents to keep up. Unfortunately, many parents feel so uncomfortable or clueless that they don’t even try to parent or protect their children in the digital realm—and both kids and their parents assume that this is private space.

In reality, though, the online world is part of their real world: U.S. 8- to 18-year-olds use media for about half of their waking hours, and for more time than they spend with parents or in school. It has become an important environment for many key developmental tasks of adolescence, like seeking out experience, building identity, and practicing social interaction.

Because such processes can be as confusing and difficult to manage online as offline, your friends have a lot to offer by “friending” their teens and opening conversations about what’s happening online. And this is where their status as digital immigrants can really help—they can ask their teens to teach them about their world. Remaining open and non-judgmental about whatever is shared can make teens respected and valued, which will allow the parents to start a supportive dialogue about life online. For ideas on where to go from there, see this CMCH resource on “The Internet Talk.”

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®

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